Beijing stressed the need to supplement the incomes of the rural population during periods of economic turbulence as the annual strategy meeting for the coming year's agricultural development ended in the capital yesterday. The two-day Central Rural Work Conference, a gathering of the country's leading bureaucrats in the agriculture industry and rural social welfare sector, concluded that two key issues were a stable grain price and re-employment of millions of laid-off migrant workers. These two elements were essential to cushion the growing impact of the global economic downturn on the 700 million-strong rural population and ensure stability in the country's vast rural areas, it concluded. The meeting, presided over by Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu, reported an 8 per cent increase in annual per capita net incomes in rural areas this year to reach 4,700 yuan (HK$5,300) - the fifth increase of more than 6 per cent in as many years. But observers said it would be hard to maintain that pace next year. 'To ensure profitability for farmers through price controls on agricultural products would not be as challenging as before given the free fall of fuel and raw material prices,' said Yu Jianrong , a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 'The real issue next year will be how the administration can tackle the troubled livelihoods of peasant-turned migrant workers who have become casualties of the economic downturn.' As many as 9 million migrant workers have been laid off this year by urban employers in export-dependent coastal areas, according to a survey by the National Bureau of Statistics. Most have returned to their rural hometowns. 'The deepening global financial crisis has directly affected the economic well-being of the rural areas,' read a statement issued after the meeting. 'We have to act decisively to prevent a drop in rural household income and grain production.' Li Chenggui, another scholar with the academy, described the situation as 'an emergency'. 'We have to stick to urbanisation of rural areas as a long-term policy goal though the current emergency calls for more forceful temporary measures,' Professor Li told Xinhua. Even before the strategic meeting, Beijing rolled out a series of measures to help jobless migrant workers back into work, including credit for small rural business start-ups, a significant increase in subsidies for agricultural equipment and the earmarking of tens of billions of new funds for infrastructure upgrade projects in rural areas. But Professor Yu argued that the already mechanised agricultural sector was not sufficient or attractive enough to accommodate the redundant labourers and that entrepreneurship would remain confined to a small percentage despite all the incentives. 'I pin my hopes on infrastructure works [to employ more rural residents] and job training as the two most effective ways to feed and pacify the beleaguered migrant worker population in the immediate future,' he said.